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John Cage: Number Pieces review – revelatory take on ‘anarchic harmony’ | John Cage

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Between 1987 and 1992, the final years of his life, John Cage composed some 40 works that he designated only by numbers, indicating the number of performers needed to realise them. They range from solos to orchestral works involving up to 108 players; when there is more than one score for the same number of instrumentalists – there are six, for instance, for two players – then superscripts are used to distinguish them.

Apartment House.
Apartment House.

There are no time signatures or bar lines; the parts for each player mostly consist of “time brackets” – musical fragments, often just a single pitch, that have to begin and end at some point within the time period indicated by the bracket. Where the performers place these notes within the brackets, and how much is coordinated between them, is left open. This set covers all the Number Pieces for medium-sized ensemble, from five to 14 players – 13 pieces altogether, though to show how unalike performances of one piece may be, there are four different realisations of Five, the first piece in the series to be written, while Four5, for clarinets and bassoon, is added as a final bonus. They vary widely in duration; Six, for percussion, lasts just three minutes, while Seven2 takes 52 minutes and Eight an hour.

The project has obviously been a real labour of love both for the group Apartment House, and for the founder of the Another Timbre label, Simon Reynell, who has written a superbly comprehensive set of notes (also available online) to accompany the discs, and they certainly justify their faith in these rarely heard works. Because of the way in which the scores are constructed, the music unfolds slowly and austerely, often through isolated sounds, irregular silences, and unlikely chords that create what Cage called “anarchic harmony”.

In some pieces, one instrument dominates – in Five3, for instance, the trombone leads a string quartet into a fragile network of microtones, while in Fourteen, the sound of piano strings played with a bow envelops the textures in an electroacoustic-like continuum. Ten is a kind of double concerto, with the pianist playing chords and producing percussive effects from the case of the piano that are reinforced by the percussionist, with the other instrumentalists winding skeins of microtones around them; Seven2 has a pair of percussionists providing the sombre foundation for the ruminations of other bass instruments.

Apartment House’s performances are wonderfully committed and considered – every note played, you sense, is there for a reason – and reveal the strange beauty in these works, even, in a piece like Thirteen, a sensuous quality. The whole set is a revelation.

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The Groucho

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